film review: Red Dragon ***1/2

There’s no odder pairing in Hollywood than Rush Hour director Brett Ratner and the newest movie in The Silence of the Lambs series. The likely result should be a trendy, fast-paced, MTV-style flick (“Don’t you ever touch a cannibal’s radio!”). Instead, Ratner, who’s also directed The Family Man and Money Talks, shows great poise in maintaining the feeling of the previous movies.

Red Dragon is set in the early 80s, before the sinister events of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. It’s actually a remake of Manhunter, which was released to poor reception in 1986, five years before The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters.

Red Dragon begins with FBI agent Will Graham capturing Hannibal Lecter. At this time Lecter is still a well-respected psychiatrist, although everyone who’s seen the other movies knows that he’s always killing people and eating them, or, for even more fun, serving their flesh to unsuspecting dinner guests. Graham had enlisted Lecter’s help on a case, before realizing the killer he was after was the doctor himself. The battle with Lecter leaves Graham wounded, and the resulting stress causes him to retire from the bureau and spend more time with his family. Lots of dramatic baggage, and that’s only the first 15 minutes.

The twist comes when Graham is called back to duty to investigate a serial killer who calls himself the Red Dragon. In order to catch the killer, Graham seeks the imprisoned Lecter’s “help.” The rest of the film follows Graham in his attempts to find the killer, and also in his dealings with his former friend, Lecter.

The reason why this film is such a great mystery is that it’s not preoccupied with shocking and wowing its audience. The film is paced slowly, but that doesn’t make it boring. Instead of racing through an obstacle course filled with explosions and shootouts, like most modern mysteries, it has long periods of dialogue and character interaction. These scenes wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the eerie music and dark set design.

Everything about Red Dragon is superb. Ratner’s directing is flawless, the camerawork and acting are also top notch. Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club) stars as Graham, and, of course, Anthony Hopkins is back to further impale Lecter into the American psyche. These two are great, but the movie wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its supporting cast of Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show) as the Red Dragon, Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant) as Graham’s partner, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Happiness) as a sleazy tabloid journalist and Emily Watson (Gosford Park) as the killer’s blind love interest. Watson and Fiennes are particularly effective, and deserve to snag a couple of Oscar nominations in the supporting categories.

This film will be better received than Hannibal because of its writing. Ted Tally, who won an Academy Award for his The Silence of the Lambs script, also wrote Red Dragon. He skipped out on Hannibal, however, leaving the scripting duties to super-scribe David Mamet and Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List).

Going by credits alone, the latter two are clearly the more successful and well- known writers. Tally, however, connects deftly in adapting these screenplays from the novels written by Thomas Harris. Tally’s The Silence of the Lambs screenplay impressed Harris so much that he refused to watch the film, afraid that it would influence his own writing.

Ratner’s first serious film succeeds with flying red colors, confidently proving that he is a versatile director. Hopkins is Lecter, and the other performances are equally impressive. Still, Red Dragon will likely be overlooked at awards time, due to the fact that it’s a prequel. Solid prequels are few and far between (isn’t that right Mr. Lucas?), and ones that can challenge the quality of the original are almost non-existent. Red Dragon doesn’t reach the caliber of The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s too endowed and cogent to be left for dead with countless green-sighted rip-offs. It’s not Rush Hour 3.

Shawn Wines can be reached at